Thousands of Tuareg refugees have escaped into neighbouring countries fearing for their lives.
After stopping in Timbuktu, French President Francois Hollande visited Mali’s capital, Bamako, where he held formal talks with his Malian counterpart Dioncounda Traore on the eventual hand-over of the French operation to a UN-backed African force.
Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for defence, foreign affairs and development, was on a one-day trip to the Sahel nation to support French troops who in three weeks have ousted fighters allied with al-Qaeda from Mali’s main northern towns.
The French president said that his country’s operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on Malian soil backed by warplanes, helicopters and armoured vehicles, aims to make way eventually for a UN-backed African force, which is still being deployed.
Hollande told the French soldiers on Friday that he was happy with their efforts “but the fight is not over and it would be a mistake to think that with our Malian friends we have found the means to secure the towns of Gao and Timbuktu and we should stop there.”
“The Malian authorities, and it is their responsibility, want to recover the territorial integrity that has been removed from them for some time and we will be by their side to continue this operation in the northern part of the country.
“But we do not have the intention of staying, because our African friends will carry on the work we have done so far,” Hollande said.
“And then ECOWAS and Malians will ensure the security of the entirety of the Malian territory,” he added.
Hollande’s visit to Mali comes as the French-led military intervention in the country to recapture towns from al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups was swiftly coming to a close.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from the airport in Timbuktu, said that the final stage of the military intervention was yet to be completed.
“To what extent the mission is accomplished is a pertinent one, the first two legs of the mission as outlined by the French have been accomplished: the drive southwards by the rebels has been stopped, and the French with the Malian army have been able to retake towns taken by the rebels,” she said.
“But the final stage of that mission, as outlined by Hollande, to restore the whole of the country as a unified nation under central government control, is still some way off.”
He is accompanied by his Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin for the one day visit, as well as interim Malian President Dioncounda Traore.
The military campaign has met little resistance, with many of the rebels believed to have slipped into the desert hills around Kidal, the rebels’ last bastion which French-led troops were poised to secure on Saturday.
France is to gradually hand over its military operation to nearly 8,000 African troops slowly being deployed, which the United Nations is considering turning into a formal UN peacekeeping operation.
Its mission will be to secure northern towns and pursue rebel fighters into their mountain redoubts near Algeria’s border.
A first contingent of Chadian troops has now entered the town, a Malian security source said, and French soldiers are stationed at the airport, which they captured on Wednesday.
Malian and French troops have come under criticism for alleged summary executions and other rights abuses against light-skinned citizens seen locally as supporters of the al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
Malian troops have denied the allegations.
Human Rights Watch said in a report corroborated by other rights groups that Malian troops had shot at least 13 suspected rebel supporters in Sevare and dumped them into wells.
“Neither the Malians nor the French took the required precautions to avoid hitting civilian targets,” Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty’s lead researcher for West Africa, told a news conference in Bamako.
“We’ve asked France and authorities in Bamako to open an independent investigation.”
France has denied responsibility for these attacks, saying that these attacks took place before its intervention began.
Many Tuaregs and Arabs had already fled fearing further attacks.
Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups have also come under criticism for rights abuses with HRW and Amnesty saying that children had been recruited as soldiers.